Despite—or perhaps because of—his grumpiness, malevolence, and hatred of joy, the Grinch has always been an oddly sympathetic character. Who can’t relate to feeling a bit alienated from the manufactured jollity of the holiday season? The Whos may be kind and genuinely warm-hearted creatures, but that only makes the green, furry monster’s spitefulness that much more relatable. In fact, what more universal sentiment is there than the bitter resentment of being excluded from other people’s happiness?
All of which is to say, nobody really asked to learn about the Grinch’s troubled upbringing in an orphanage to understand why he’d want to wreck Whoville’s fun. And yet, that’s exactly the sort of pointless character detail that directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney’s The Grinch—a stupefyingly dull spin on Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!—thinks audiences need to know.
This particular bit of backstory is revealed in a bizarre sequence in which the Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) suffers PTSD-like flashbacks induced by a Christmas carnival. But the Grinch isn’t the only character saddled with a clunky, cloying subplot, as the film also expands on the reed-thin character of Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) by supplying her with an overworked single mom, Donna Lou Who (Rashida Jones), to worry about. In a mawkish touch worthy of NewSong’s “The Christmas Shoes,” Cindy Lou is obsessed with meeting Santa Clause, so as to inform him of her one Christmas wish: that her mom, who works so hard for others, get a little help for herself.
Mosier and Cheney’s Grinch isn’t the fiendish mischief-maker of Dr. Seuss’s children’s story and the equally classic animated television special, but a smug, coffee-guzzling neurotic voiced by Cumberbatch with a priggish nasal whine. With his fuzzy green fur and button nose, he’s a cutesier, cuddlier Grinch, but he’s also considerably less charming. There’s no sense of wickedness to the character, no Seussian idiosyncrasy, just annoying pettiness and insecurity. He’s very much a villain in the contemporary kiddie-film mold, where the bad guys are never really bad, just misunderstood.
Mr. Grinch, however, is still, as the song goes, a mean one. Only this time it’s not Thurl Ravenscroft’s booming baritone informing us of that fact, but Tyler, the Creator’s slacker mumble, backed by a chorus of children. Hiring the rapper to put his own spin on the tune is the closest The Grinch ever comes to leaving its own distinctive stamp on the property, but there’s nothing else in the film that even attempts to match the charming strangeness of the song.
Instead, Tyler’s weirdo howls are drowned out by the film’s sheer and depressing conventionality: its runtime-padding subplots, bog-standard computer animation, wishy-washy Pharrell Williams narration, and desperate attempts to pack as much yuletide cheer as possible into every single frame. In the end, the film’s vision of Christmas is so insipid and lifeless, it’s hard to see why the Grinch would even bother to steal it.